Monday, February 28, 2011

Captain Beefheart's 10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

1. Listen to the birds

That's where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren't going anywhere.

2. Your guitar is not really a guitar

Your guitar is a divining rod. Use it to find spirits in the other world and bring them over. A guitar is also a fishing rod. If you're good, you'll land a big one.

3. Practice in front of a bush

Wait until the moon is out, then go outside, eat a multi-grained bread and play your guitar to a bush. If the bush doesn't shake, eat another piece of bread.

4. Walk with the devil

Old Delta blues players referred to guitar amplifiers as the "devil box." And they were right. You have to be an equal opportunity employer in terms of who you're brining over from the other side. Electricity attracts devils and demons. Other instruments attract other spirits. An acoustic guitar attracts Casper. A mandolin attracts Wendy. But an electric guitar attracts Beelzebub.

5. If you're guilty of thinking, you're out

If your brain is part of the process, you're missing it. You should play like a drowning man, struggling to reach shore. If you can trap that feeling, then you have something that is fur bearing.

6. Never point your guitar at anyone

Your instrument has more clout than lightning. Just hit a big chord then run outside to hear it. But make sure you are not standing in an open field.

7. Always carry a church key

That's your key-man clause. Like One String Sam. He's one. He was a Detroit street musician who played in the fifties on a homemade instrument. His song "I Need a Hundred Dollars" is warm pie. Another key to the church is Hubert Sumlin, Howlin' Wolf's guitar player. He just stands there like the Statue of Liberty — making you want to look up her dress the whole time to see how he's doing it.

8. Don't wipe the sweat off your instrument

You need that stink on there. Then you have to get that stink onto your music.

9. Keep your guitar in a dark place

When you're not playing your guitar, cover it and keep it in a dark place. If you don't play your guitar for more than a day, be sure you put a saucer of water in with it.

10. You gotta have a hood for your engine

Keep that hat on. A hat is a pressure cooker. If you have a roof on your house, the hot air can't escape. Even a lima bean has to have a piece of wet paper around it to make it grow.

Creative Commons 1970

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

False Economy - Health Cuts II

False Economy is officially launched today after having been in Beta for a while. It celebrates the event with this news, which I will quote in full.

"False Economy, which formally launches today, can reveal that more than 50,000 NHS staff posts are set for the axe, destroying government claims that the NHS is in safe hands.

Health secretary Andrew Lansley said in April 2010 of possible NHS job cuts under Labour: “They will cut the number of nurses, the number of doctors and the number of hospital beds. It does not get more frontline than that.”

David Cameron then famously claimed before the election that he would “cut the deficit, not the NHS”.

However less than 10 months into the coalition government, the reality couldn’t be more different, with NHS cuts across the country including:

  • East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, which expects to shed 1,013 full-time equivalent staff from 2010-15, including almost 50 doctors and dental staff, and 270 nurses, midwives and health visitors.
  • Wirral University Teaching Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, which is cutting 682 full-time equivalent posts between 2010 and 2013. 110 posts have already gone.
  • University Hospital of North Staffordshire NHS Trust, who are currently forecasting a reduction of 1,349 full-time posts from 2011-15, which is 22.5 per cent of its entire staff.
  • Countess of Chester Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, who expect to cut 461 full-time posts by 2015 – a 16 per cent reduction, including a 12 per cent cut in nurses, midwives and health visitors.
  • Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, which is cutting 1,755 full-time posts in 2010-11 – nearly a nine per cent net reduction in one year, including 120 doctors and dentists, and 620 nurses.
  • Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, who plan to shed 1,115 full-time posts from 2011-14, mainly through natural turnover.

The total confirmed, planned and potential NHS staff cuts across the country currently stands at just over 53,150 posts – and that’s before a host of trusts are expected to announce staff cuts over the next four months, including all Wales’ health boards.

The national total is already twice the previous estimate of 27,000 job cuts, published by the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) last November.

The cuts in mental health trusts are particularly acute, with cuts of over 15 per cent at the following NHS Trusts; Coventry and Warwickshire Partnership, Derbyshire Mental Health Services, Mersey Care, and Kent and Medway and Social Care Partnership Trust.

Our figures have been collated for the most part from NHS trusts themselves under the Freedom of Information Act but also include figures sourced by the RCN Frontline First campaign, as well as press reports and foundation trusts’ annual plans published by the national regulator Monitor.

The figures are, where possible, given as full-time equivalents, net of any recruitment of new staff. They include the 4,000 job cuts recently predicted by Northern Irish health minister Michael McGimpsey over the next four years, plus 3,000 job cuts previously announced by NHS trusts that are now subject to revision.

While most of the cuts are likely to be achieved through natural wastage rather than compulsory redundancies, it is hard to see how 20 per cent staff cuts – such as those planned by Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust – can be achieved without directly impacting on patient care.

TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said: “False Economy’s new research on NHS job cuts gives the lie to government claims that the NHS was safe in their hands. Not only are they reorganising the NHS in a way that strips out many of its founding principles, but also insisting on immediate cuts that will certainly harm frontline services. To echo Andrew Lansley, it does not get much more frontline than that.

For a live feed on the NHS cuts from False Economy ...

Monday, February 21, 2011

False Economy - Whistleblowing

On Friday I posted the personal experience of a typical mid-level civil servant in local government in a typically depressed high unemployment town in the north of England. S/he is given the unfortunate role of making 25% of his/her staff unemployed. S/he then fears that his/her own job will be cut.

I also posted the email on the False Economy website.

Today (Sunday) s/he rang me to request that I take the post down (both on my blog and on False Economy) saying that if his/her bosses see it his/her redundancy is likely to come sooner than later. A call from the UK to central Africa is not cheap - s/he must be worried to call me when s/he could have sent me an email. I cannot do anything until Monday anyway as I don't have an Internet connection at home.

In the UK there are laws and regulations to protect whistle-blowers. Obviously, my friend does not feel these are enough to protect his/her job and his/her arse in the present climate.

I hate to think of the "climate" in the UK currently. The "law and order" party is even cutting police force and Defense budgets! What the fuck is going on?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stand Up for a Fair Share

From the Manchester Evening News:

"The M.E.N. today calls on the people of Greater Manchester to stand up against unfair spending cuts.

We revealed how our region is bearing the brunt of massive reductions in council grants – while rich southern shires escape relatively unscathed.

Vital services to vulnerable communities will be slashed and thousands of jobs lost.

Today, we team up with senior politicians to demand the government gives us our fair share.

We are calling on communities across the region to sign the biggest petition Greater Manchester has ever seen.

Comment: How can the cuts be deemed fair?

Manchester council, which is suffering a massive £110m budget cut, will this week launch the petition. Other town halls have already lent their support – and pledged to follow suit.

Council % cut

Manchester 21
Rochdale 20.5
Salford 19.6
Oldham 18.9
Bolton 18.3
Wigan 17.3
Bury 16.6
Tameside 16.5
Trafford 15.6


Stockport 13.8

The table shows the percentage cut in central government grant over the next two years.

The M.E.N. is backing the petition because of the scale of the injustice facing our councils.

Over the next two years, councils nationally will lose an average 15.2 per cent of their grants.

But NINE of the 10 local authorities in Greater Manchester are losing more.

Only Stockport has done better than the average – and then only just – while affluent regions face much smaller losses.

The cuts will lead to nearly 6,000 job losses, despite Greater Manchester having some of the highest levels of deprivation in the country. Salford will have to lose 800 staff, Rochdale 300, Oldham 800, and Bolton 1,500.

Cash-strapped Bury council will lose 184 jobs, while Stockport and Trafford will lose 250 and 150.

The petition will be launched in Manchester after a full council meeting on Wednesday.

Jim Battle, deputy leader of the council, said: “It will be the biggest petition that Manchester has ever seen. It will be online and in shopping centres.

“We will be going into streets, communities and churches to encourage people to stand up and fight for Manchester.”

Many town hall leaders across the region say they will introduce similar motions.

John Merry, leader of Salford, said: “It is important for everyone, regardless of political persuasion, to stand up against these unfair cuts which hit people in our area harder than anywhere else.”

Tameside’s leader Kieran Quinn said: “It’s something that we absolutely support and we will make enquiries to have a similar motion in our council.”

But Tory-led Trafford Council, which has to shed £15.2m by 2013, say they will not support the motion. Leader Matt Colledge said: “It isn’t something we would put our names to. We are concentrating on finding solutions to the problem.”

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

West Africa Open Society Initiative

This heartens me somewhat amongst all the doom and gloom.

And the related West Africa Democracy Radio.

NHS 'failing to treat elderly with care and respect'

... is the headline from the BBC.

"Care services minister Paul Burstow agreed, but acknowledged standards still needed to improve.

"We need a culture where poor practice is challenged and quality is the watchword. The dignity of frail older people should never be sidelined."

He said the government's reforms of the NHS would strengthen the voice of patients."

Great ... with all these cuts will the voice of patients be heard, let alone be acted upon?

Kezia's Passport

I need to renew Kezia's UK passport which expires in July. I started making enquiries in January thinking this would be well in advance ... but am now beginning to doubt it.

The principle complication that the UK Embassy in Luanda, Angola cannot issue passports and applications have to be forwarded to Pretoria, South Africa. A further complication is that we live in São Tomé e Príncipe, a long way from both Luanda and Pretoria.


From: Angus Gascoigne

Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2011 10:19:07 +0000
Subject: Attn Jorge Cen re passport renewal
To: luanda.consular at

Dear Jorge

Thank you for your help on the phone this morning.

I (Angus Robin Gascoigne) am a UK citizen resident in Sao Tome for
many years. I am sure the consular section has a big file on myself
and my family.

My daughter, Kezia Lima Gascoigne, aged 6, is also a UK citizen and
has a UK passport (issued in the UK) that expires in July. I am
wondering how to renew it. So various questions ...

a) is there a renewal process separate from applying for a new passport?
b) what form needs to be completed?
c) do we need to send the existing passport?
d) I do understand that passport processing is now in Pretoria (my own
was issued there) - from your website I understand that the
application/passport can be sent to Luanda and you would forward it by
diplomatic pouch to Pretoria. I think I can send documents from here
to you via the STP Min of Foreign Affairs to the STP embassy in Luanda
who could hand it to you for forwarding.
e) Payment? Is renewal fee the same as a new passport? Can I pay you
in Angola or do I have to pay Pretoria?

etc etc

From STP it is always complicated!

I look forward to your reply asap.

Best wishes


From: Angus Gascoigne
Date: Tue, 25 Jan 2011 16:18:06 +0000

Subject: Fwd: Attn Jorge Cen re passport renewal Kezia Lima Gascoigne
To: "luanda.consular"

Dear Jorge

fyi just some more details that might help:

Me father Angus Robin Gascoigne: British Citizen, passport no.
7xxxxxxxx1, issued by FCO (i.e. Pretoria) 30/08/2007

Daughter Kezia Lima Gascoigne: British Citizen, passport no.
4xxxxxxx1, issued by UKPA 26/07/2006, Exp: 26/07/2011. DOB: 14/04/2004

Look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes

Angus Gascoigne

I was then told by the UK Embassy Luanda to consult the UK High Commission Pretoria website or by email. So this morning I wrote an email copying my correspondence with Luanda and got this reply:


From: Angus Gascoigne
Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2011 08:54:45 +0000
Subject: UK passport enquiry from Sao Tome e Principe
Cc: luanda.consular at

Dear BHC Pretoria

Please see messages to the UK Embassy Luanda below.

I would very much appreciate knowing

a) if renewal of a UK passport for a minor is different than applying
for a new passport
b) if the fees are the same
c) what form to use and where to find it
d) whether routing suggestion is acceptable.

Best regards

... and got this reply:


Gmail Angus Gascoigne
Out of Office: UK passport enquiry from Sao Tome e Principe Tue, Feb 15, 2011 at 8:54 AM
To: angusgas

British Consulate, Passport Section, Pretoria

Thank you for contacting the British Consulate, Passport Section, Pretoria. This is an automated response. We have compiled the information sheet below to answer the most commonly asked questions for both prospective and current applicants. We hope this is useful to you. In the event that we consider that this automated reply has not addressed your specific query we will respond as soon as possible and within a maximum of 20 working days, this is a global policy.

1. Am I British?

We cannot tell you if you are British or not until you submit an application with the correct fees. You can visit website for guidance on determining whether you may have a claim to British Nationality.

A recent change in UK law allowed children of UK born mothers to register as a British National. We accept applications for registration and will forward them to the Home Office who make the final decision (not the passport section). This can take between 3-6 months. We will not accept a passport application from an applicant who is applying to register as a British National until the registration process is complete.

2. How do I obtain passport application forms?

Passport application forms can either be found at our website address: Alternatively, you may visit our offices in Pretoria, Port Elizabeth, Durban or Cape Town Consulate to obtain them. Veteran application forms are not available on-line and must be collected from one of our offices or applied for by post and a stamped addressed envelope is required.

3. How do I apply?

Application forms can be submitted by courier. We have negotiated a preferential rate with Fedex.
( They will deliver next day and collect and advise you by e-mail that your documents are being returned.

4. Where are you situated in Pretoria?

Our physical address is: Liberty Place Building, Block B, 1st Floor, 256 Glyn Street, between Pretorius and Schoeman Streets, Hatfield, 0028

Our postal address is: British Consulate, PO Box 13611, Hatfield, 0028

5. What are your operating hours?

We open for applications between 8:00am to 1:25 pm Monday to Thursday and on Friday 8:00 am to 12 noon. Passports can be collected between 8-11 am only.

6. Telephone calls?

Our telephone enquiries have been outsourced to Careline in the UK. Careline answer calls from 08:00 to 5:00 pm Monday to Fridays. The telephone number is 0044 208 082 4743. You will be charged for this call and need a credit card to access the information required.

7. How long does it take to issue a passport?

4-6 weeks. The vast majority of passport renewals (over 90%) are issued within 4 weeks. You should advise your courier to collect after this time frame. Customers using FedEx will have their passport despatched immediately it is ready and receive an e-mail notification from FedEx. First time applications or where there are problems can take longer. If there is a problem we will usually contact you.

8. How much does it cost for the passports and what method can I use to make a payment?

The fee for passports and methods of payment are found on - follow the links for fees.

9. How do I find out the progress of my application?

You will need to contact Careline. See details above.

10. Do I qualify for a free Veteran's passport?

British nationals born before 2 September 1929 are now eligible to receive passports free of charge. You'll need to use a different application form, and thes are available from our office. Veteran applications are received in PTA but are forwarded for issuing in London and take 6-8 weeks due to not being processed locally.

11. Can someone collect a passport on your behalf?

An authorisation letter will be required signed by an applicant. For children under 16 of age, the parents who completed the form must write the letter. A photo I.D. document must be produced along with the letter for security reasons.

12. How do I get my passport back?

You can pay return postage or courier fees with your application (fee link gives further details). If you do not pay we will retain your passport in our Pretoria office until you collect it in person.

13. How do I find out more information?

For more information such as directions, documents required etc. can be found on our website address:

CARELINE IN THE UK (who the fuck are they?) ... "You will be charged for this call and need a credit card to access the information required."

You need a credit card to be a British Citizen?!!!

So I've now written back to Luanda ...

Our Kafka novel begins!

Watch this space!

Monday, February 14, 2011

False Economy - Why Cuts are the Wrong Cure

The wrong cure - an apt phrase for the cuts being imposed on the UK National Health Service.

As Kezia was diagnosed with leukaemia at Rochdale's general infirmary and received her treatment at the Royal Manchester Children's Hospital for three long years, I here present some of the cuts in the northwest of England as presented by False Economy. These are pretty typical throughout the country.


"On 20th August 2010, University Hospital of South Manchester (UHSM) NHS Foundation Trust has issued notification for possible redundancies for the equivalent of 27.6 full-time clerical posts and 11 managerial posts.

UHSM is a major acute teaching hospital trust providing services for adults and children at Wythenshawe Hospital and Withington Community Hospital."


"Royal Bolton Hospital NHS Foundation Trust is set to cut the equivalent of 257 full-time staff posts between 2010 and 2013.

The Trust is cutting 70 posts through natural turnover during 2010/11, which is just over two percent of total staffing. The expected breakdown of this reduction is as follows:

Management - 1 FTE (full-time equivalent staff)
Nursing and midwifery - 48 FTE
Admin and clerical - 15 FTE
Associated health professions - 3 FTE
Ancillary staff - 3 FTE

The Trust expects to cut a further 92 posts during 2011/12 and 95 in 2012/13, although both these figures reflect overall savings as applied to pay budgets, and could reduce if extra non-pay savings are found, as they were in 2010/11.

The Trust offers a wide range of services based at the Royal Bolton Hospital in Farnworth, as well as some in community settings."


"Trafford Healthcare NHS Trust expects to cut the equivalent of 50-70 non-clinical full-time posts through natural wastage following changes to services.

The Trust provides services at Trafford General and Stretford Memorial Hospitals in Manchester, Altrincham General Hospital, and in the community."


"From 11th October 2010, Burnley General Hospital’s casualty department is no longer being staffed by a specialist Accident & Emergency doctor between 2am and 8am each night.

Instead, the department - known as the Urgent Care Centre - is being run by nurses with access to an on-site family doctor, who local trade union officials say has not worked in an A&E environment for 15 years.

Previously, the department was staffed by nurses with support from a registrar who would normally have around five years’ experience of working in an A&E department.

A recent independent review recommended the Urgent Care Centre be upgraded."


"University Hospitals of Morecambe Bay NHS Foundation Trust plans to cut staffing levels by the equivalent of 705 full-time posts between 2010 and 2015 - a 16.25 percent cut in total staffing levels.

Around 60 percent of the reduction will fall in clinical posts.

The Trust provides services from five hospitals - Furness General Hospital, Royal Lancaster Infirmary, Westmorland General Hospital, Queen Victoria Hospital, and Ulverston Community Health Centre."

And so on and so on and so on ...

The cuts had already begun under Blair and Brown´s Labour governments. The new UK government, under Conservative Cameron and Liberal Clegg, are continuing with the same policies. So following on from cuts in maternity and A & E services in Rochdale under the former, further cuts will continue under the latter.

Drs Rant and Crippen, so critical of Labour's NHS policies must be content with the cuts in NHS management and even the reduction in "nurse specialists". I would like to read their reactions to the end of PCTs etc and the extra work load put on them through "GP commissioning".

So much for the NHS ...

Let us move on.

When I was last in Rochdale, Woolworths was closing its nortwest regional depot, the town's largest employer. as well as many of its stores (including the one in Rochdale).


"Rochdale Law Centre, a charity law centre serving Rochdale—one of the most deprived areas of the country—has already had its immigration and asylum funding cut by 75%. Further cuts from the public sector threaten to decimate the remaining services, including community care, employment, housing, and discrimination. This means that the most vulnerable and marginalised people in our community won’t have access to justice when their rights are threatened."

This is the one I like most ...


"Manchester City Council plans to close all its public toilets except those on Mount Street, which will be subject to a small charge."

I told my boss and he delighted me with his "let them eat cake" solution - "let them piss in the street"!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Map the Cuts

I've blogged this week about the UK public library and NHS cuts. I am full of rage.

See Public Libraries News, Anti Cuts Protests
and False Economy.

I revisited
Ushahidi and discovered how far this web-based mapping tool has come now with associated applications Crowdmap and SwiftRiver. Most recently it is being used to map the events in Egypt.

Now I discover Sukey, a web-based mobile phone application to keep you informed of police "kettling" strategies whilst you attend your latest demo against the cuts. Objectives:

"To keep peaceful protesters informed with live protest information that will assist them in avoiding injury, in keeping clear of trouble spots and in avoiding unnecessary detention.

The application suite gives maximum information to those participating in a demonstration so that they can make informed decisions, as well as to those following externally who may be concerned about friends and family.

It should make full use of the crowd in gathering information which is then analysed and handed back to the crowd."

Guardian article here.

I just love the web-based tools being developed to assist activism worldwide.

Sukey recalls the protests against SUS in the early eighties:

"a stop and search law that permitted a police officer to act on suspicion, or 'sus', alone.

It was based upon Sections 4 and 6 of the Vagrancy Act 1824 which made it "illegal for a suspected person or reputed thief to frequent or loiter in a public place with intent to commit an arrestable offence" and effectively permitted the police to stop and search and even arrest suspicious persons, purely to prevent crime.

The law caused much discontent among certain sections of the population, particularly black and ethnic minority communities, against whom the police use of the law was particularly targeted—see racial profiling. The sus law was abolished following race riots in St Pauls, Bristol, in 1980, and in Brixton, London, Toxteth, Liverpool, Handsworth, Birmingham and Chapeltown, Leeds in 1981, because its alleged abuse was believed to be a contributory factor to these events. The sus law was repealed on the 27 July 1981, on the advice of the 1979 Royal Commission on Criminal Procedure, when the 1981 Criminal Attempts Act received the Royal Assent."

It seems David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister wants to reintroduce SUS:

"In January 2008 David Cameron, Leader of the Conservative Party, announced that he would, if elected, seek to return similar powers to the police. Under Conservative proposals, police sergeants would be able to authorise the use of stop and search of pedestrians and vehicles in a specific area for up to six hours ...".

Its about time that the cuts - whether public libraries, health services, municipal councils etc - are mapped using the likes of Ushahidi or Crowdmap.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

False Economy - Health Cuts

Where have my NHS friends gone?

See this.

Where I learned to read

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t understand their value.

Philip Pullman

Best-selling author Philip Pullman spoke to a packed meeting on 20 January 2011, called to defend Oxfordshire libraries. He gave this inspirational speech, which we are very pleased to co-publish with openDemocracy.

You don’t need me to give you the facts. Everyone here is aware of the situation. The government, in the Dickensian person of Mr Eric Pickles, has cut the money it gives to local government, and passed on the responsibility for making the savings to local authorities. Some of them have responded enthusiastically, some less so; some have decided to protect their library service, others have hacked into theirs like the fanatical Bishop Theophilus in the year 391 laying waste to the Library of Alexandria and its hundreds of thousands of books of learning and scholarship.

Here in Oxfordshire we are threatened with the closure of 20 out of our 43 public libraries. Mr Keith Mitchell, the leader of the county council, said in the Oxford Times last week that the cuts are inevitable, and invites us to suggest what we would do instead. What would we cut? Would we sacrifice care for the elderly? Or would youth services feel the axe?

I don’t think we should accept his invitation. It’s not our job to cut services. It’s his job to protect them.

Nor do I think we should respond to the fatuous idea that libraries can stay open if they’re staffed by volunteers. What patronising nonsense. Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content, that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea? Does he think that all a librarian does is to tidy the shelves? And who are these volunteers? Who are these people whose lives are so empty, whose time spreads out in front of them like the limitless steppes of central Asia, who have no families to look after, no jobs to do, no responsibilities of any sort, and yet are so wealthy that they can commit hours of their time every week to working for nothing? Who are these volunteers? Do you know anyone who could volunteer their time in this way? If there’s anyone who has the time and the energy to work for nothing in a good cause, they are probably already working for one of the voluntary sector day centres or running a local football team or helping out with the league of friends in a hospital. What’s going to make them stop doing that and start working in a library instead?

“The council is hoping that the youth service, which is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?”

Especially since the council is hoping that the youth service, which by a strange coincidence is also going to lose 20 centres, will be staffed by – guess what – volunteers. Are these the same volunteers, or a different lot of volunteers?

This is the Big Society, you see. It must be big, to contain so many volunteers.

But there’s a prize being dangled in front of these imaginary volunteers. People who want to save their library, we’re told, are going to be “allowed to bid” for some money from a central pot. We must sit up and beg for it, like little dogs, and wag our tails when we get a bit.

The sum first mentioned was £200,000. Divide that between the 20 libraries due for closure and it comes to £10,000 each, which doesn’t seem like very much to me. But of course it’s not going to be equally divided. Some bids will be preferred, others rejected. And then comes the trick: they “generously” increase the amount to be bid for. It’s not £200,000. It’s £600,000. It’s a victory for the volunteers. Hoorah for the Big Society! We’ve “won” some more money!

Oh, but wait a minute. This isn’t £600,000 for the libraries. It turns out that that sum is to be bid for by everyone who runs anything at all. All those volunteers bidding like mad will soon chip away at the £600,000. A day care centre here, a special transport service there, an adult learning course somewhere else, all full of keen-eyed volunteers bidding away like mad, and before you know it the amount available to libraries has suddenly shrunk. Why should libraries have a whole third of all the Big Society money?

But just for the sake of simplicity let’s imagine it’s only libraries. Imagine two communities that have been told their local library is going to be closed. One of them is full of people with generous pension arrangements, plenty of time on their hands, lots of experience of negotiating planning applications and that sort of thing, broadband connections to every household, two cars in every drive, neighbourhood watch schemes in every road, all organised and ready to go. Now I like people like that. They are the backbone of many communities. I approve of them and of their desire to do something for their villages or towns. I’m not knocking them.

But they do have certain advantages that the other community, the second one I’m talking about, does not. There people are out of work, there are a lot of single parent households, young mothers struggling to look after their toddlers, and as for broadband and two cars, they might have a slow old computer if they’re lucky and a beaten-up old van and they dread the MOT test – people for whom a trip to the centre of Oxford takes a lot of time to organise, a lot of energy to negotiate, getting the children into something warm, getting the buggy set up and the baby stuff all organised, and the bus isn’t free, either – you can imagine it. Which of those two communities will get a bid organised to fund their local library?

But one of the few things that make life bearable for the young mother in the second community at the moment is a weekly story session in the local library, the one just down the road. She can go there with the toddler and the baby and sit in the warmth, in a place that’s clean and safe and friendly, a place that makes her and the children welcome. But has she, have any of the mothers or the older people who use the library got all that hinterland of wealth and social confidence and political connections and administrative experience and spare time and energy to enable them to be volunteers on the same basis as the people in the first community? And how many people can volunteer to do this, when they’re already doing so much else?

“What I personally hate about this bidding culture is that it sets one community, one group, one school, against another”

What I personally hate about this bidding culture is that it sets one community, one group, one school, against another. If one wins, the other loses. I’ve always hated it. It started coming in when I left the teaching profession 25 years ago, and I could see the way things were going then. In a way it’s an abdication of responsibility. We elect people to decide things, and they don’t really want to decide, so they set up this bidding nonsense and then they aren’t really responsible for the outcome. “Well, if the community really wanted it, they would have put in a better bid … Nothing I can do about it … My hands are tied …”

And it always results in victory for one side and defeat for the other. It’s set up to do that. It’s imported the worst excesses of market fundamentalism into the one arena that used to be safe from them, the one part of our public and social life that used to be free of the commercial pressure to win or to lose, to survive or to die, which is the very essence of the religion of the market. Like all fundamentalists who get their clammy hands on the levers of political power, the market fanatics are going to kill off every humane, life-enhancing, generous, imaginative and decent corner of our public life. I think that little by little we’re waking up to the truth about the market fanatics and their creed. We’re coming to see that old Karl Marx had his finger on the heart of the matter when he pointed out that the market in the end will destroy everything we know, everything we thought was safe and solid. It is the most powerful solvent known to history. “Everything solid melts into air,” he said. “All that is holy is profaned.”

Market fundamentalism, this madness that’s infected the human race, is like a greedy ghost that haunts the boardrooms and council chambers and committee rooms from which the world is run these days.

In the world I know about, the world of books and publishing and bookselling, it used to be the case that a publisher would read a book and like it and publish it. They’d back their judgement on the quality of the book and their feeling about whether the author had more books in him or in her, and sometimes the book would sell lots of copies and sometimes it wouldn’t, but that didn’t much matter because they knew it took three or four books before an author really found his or her voice and got the attention of the public. And there were several successful publishers who knew that some of their authors would never sell a lot of copies, but they kept publishing them because they liked their work. It was a human occupation run by human beings. It was about books, and people were in publishing or bookselling because they believed that books were the expression of the human spirit, vessels of delight or of consolation or enlightenment.

Not any more, because the greedy ghost of market madness has got into the controlling heights of publishing. Publishers are run by money people now, not book people. The greedy ghost whispers into their ears: Why are you publishing that man? He doesn’t sell enough. Stop publishing him. Look at this list of last year’s books: over half of them weren’t bestsellers. This year you must only publish bestsellers. Why are you publishing this woman? She’ll only appeal to a small minority. Minorities are no good to us. We want to double the return we get on each book we publish.

So decisions are made for the wrong reasons. The human joy and pleasure goes out of it; books are published not because they’re good books but because they’re just like the books that are in the bestseller lists now, because the only measure is profit.

The greedy ghost is everywhere. That office block isn’t making enough money: tear it down and put up a block of flats. The flats aren’t making enough money: rip them apart and put up a hotel. The hotel isn’t making enough money: smash it to the ground and put up a multiplex cinema. The cinema isn’t making enough money: demolish it and put up a shopping mall.

“The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands... He doesn’t understand libraries at all. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards?”

The greedy ghost understands profit all right. But that’s all he understands. What he doesn’t understand is enterprises that don’t make a profit, because they’re not set up to do that but to do something different. He doesn’t understand libraries at all, for instance. That branch – how much money did it make last year? Why aren’t you charging higher fines? Why don’t you charge for library cards? Why don’t you charge for every catalogue search? Reserving books – you should charge a lot more for that. Those bookshelves over there – what’s on them? Philosophy? And how many people looked at them last week? Three? Empty those shelves and fill them up with celebrity memoirs.

That’s all the greedy ghost thinks libraries are for.

Now of course I’m not blaming Oxfordshire County Council for the entire collapse of social decency throughout the western world. Its powers are large, its authority is awe-inspiring, but not that awe-inspiring. The blame for our current situation goes further back and higher up even than the majestic office currently held by Mr Keith Mitchell. It even goes higher up and further back than the substantial, not to say monumental, figure of Eric Pickles. To find the true origin you’d have to go on a long journey back in time, and you might do worse than to make your first stop in Chicago, the home of the famous Chicago School of Economics, which argued for the unfettered freedom of the market and as little government as possible.

And you could go a little further back to the end of the nineteenth century and look at the ideas of “scientific management”, as it was called, the idea of Frederick Taylor that you could get more work out of an employee by splitting up his job into tiny parts and timing how long it took to do each one, and so on – the transformation of human craftsmanship into mechanical mass production.

And you could go on, further back in time, way back before recorded history. The ultimate source is probably the tendency in some of us, part of our psychological inheritance from our far-distant ancestors, the tendency to look for extreme solutions, absolute truths, abstract answers. All fanatics and fundamentalists share this tendency, which is so alien and unpleasing to the rest of us. The theory says they must do such-and-such, so they do it, never mind the human consequences, never mind the social cost, never mind the terrible damage to the fabric of everything decent and humane.

I’m afraid these fundamentalists of one sort or another will always be with us. We just have to keep them as far away as possible from the levers of power.

But I’ll finish by coming back to libraries. I want to say something about my own relationship with libraries. Apparently Mr Mitchell thinks that we authors who defend libraries are only doing it because we have a vested interest – because we’re in it for the money. I thought the general custom of public discourse was to go through the substantial arguments before descending to personal abuse. If he’s doing it so early in the discussion, it’s a sure sign he hasn’t got much faith in the rest of his case.

No, Mr Mitchell, it isn’t for the money. I’m doing it for love.

I still remember the first library ticket I ever had. It must have been about 1957. My mother took me to the public library just off Battersea Park Road and enrolled me. I was thrilled. All those books, and I was allowed to borrow whichever I wanted! And I remember some of the first books I borrowed and fell in love with: the Moomin books by Tove Jansson; a French novel for children called A Hundred Million Francs; why did I like that? Why did I read it over and over again, and borrow it many times? I don’t know. But what a gift to give a child, this chance to discover that you can love a book and the characters in it, you can become their friend and share their adventures in your own imagination.

And the secrecy of it! The blessed privacy! No-one else can get in the way, no-one else can invade it, no-one else even knows what’s going on in that wonderful space that opens up between the reader and the book. That open democratic space full of thrills, full of excitement and fear, full of astonishment, where your own emotions and ideas are given back to you clarified, magnified, purified, valued. You’re a citizen of that great democratic space that opens up between you and the book. And the body that gave it to you is the public library. Can I possibly convey the magnitude of that gift?

Somewhere in Blackbird Leys, somewhere in Berinsfield, somewhere in Botley, somewhere in Benson or in Bampton, to name only the communities beginning with B whose libraries are going to be abolished, somewhere in each of them there is a child right now, there are children, just like me at that age in Battersea, children who only need to make that discovery to learn that they too are citizens of the republic of reading. Only the public library can give them that gift.

A little later, when we were living in north Wales, there was a mobile library that used to travel around the villages and came to us once a fortnight. I suppose I would have been about sixteen. One day I saw a novel whose cover intrigued me, so I took it out, knowing nothing of the author. It was called Balthazar, by Lawrence Durrell. The Alexandria Quartet – we’re back to Alexandria again – was very big at that time; highly praised, made much fuss of. It’s less highly regarded now, but I’m not in the habit of dissing what I once loved, and I fell for this book and the others, Justine, Mountolive, Clea, which I hastened to read after it. I adored these stories of wealthy cosmopolitan bohemian people having affairs and talking about life and art and things in that beautiful city. Another great gift from the public library.

“Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library were open to me. I didn’t dare go in. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building.”

Then I came to Oxford as an undergraduate, and all the riches of the Bodleian Library, one of the greatest libraries in the world, were open to me – theoretically. In practice I didn’t dare go in. I was intimidated by all that grandeur. I didn’t learn the ropes of the Bodleian till much later, when I was grown up. The library I used as a student was the old public library, round the back of this very building. If there’s anyone as old as I am here, you might remember it. One day I saw a book by someone I’d never heard of, Frances Yates, called Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition. I read it enthralled and amazed.It changed my life, or at least the intellectual direction in which I was going. It certainly changed the novel, my first, that I was tinkering with instead of studying for my final exams. Again, a life-changing discover, only possible because there was a big room with a lot of books and I was allowed to range wherever I liked and borrow any of them.

One final memory, this time from just a couple of years ago: I was trying to find out where all the rivers and streams ran in Oxford, for a book I’m writing called The Book of Dust. I went to the Central Library and there, with the help of a clever member of staff, I managed to find some old maps that showed me exactly what I wanted to know, and I photocopied them, and now they are pinned to my wall where I can see exactly what I want to know.

The public library, again. Yes, I’m writing a book, Mr Mitchell, and yes, I hope it’ll make some money. But I’m not praising the public library service for money. I love the public library service for what it did for me as a child and as a student and as an adult. I love it because its presence in a town or a city reminds us that there are things above profit, things that profit knows nothing about, things that have the power to baffle the greedy ghost of market fundamentalism, things that stand for civic decency and public respect for imagination and knowledge and the value of simple delight.

I love it for that, and so do the citizens of Summertown, Headington, Littlemore, Old Marston, Blackbird Leys, Neithrop, Adderbury, Bampton, Benson, Berinsfield, Botley, Charlbury, Chinnor, Deddington, Grove, Kennington, North Leigh, Sonning Common, Stonesfield, Woodcote.

And Battersea.

And Alexandria.

Leave the libraries alone. You don’t know the value of what you’re looking after. It is too precious to destroy.

Philip Pullman

Lots of Ways to access the outside world from Egypt

See this.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Tolstoy Rules

Tolstoy wrote these rules on how to be happy when he was eighteen years old:

Get up early (five o’clock)
Go to bed early (nine to ten o’clock)
Eat little and avoid sweets
Try to do everything by yourself
Have a goal for your whole life, a goal for one section of your life, a goal for a shorter period and a goal for the year; a goal for every month, a goal for every week, a goal for every day, a goal for every hour and for evry minute, and sacrifice the lesser goal to the greater
Keep away from women
Kill desire by work
Be good, but try to let no one know it
Always live less expensively than you might
Change nothing in your style of living even if you become ten times richer

Thanks to the Happiness Project.